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Carolyn Baker Reviews "Path Through Infinity's Rainbow"
Friday, 07 March 2008 03:10
by Carolyn Baker

Examining the causes, consequences, and interrelationships of the current crises with actionable advice for individuals and governments

We must leave the old left/right, liberal conservative paradigm behind us. Smaller government under local control-as will be the case in the Renewal communities-could actually be considered a "conservative" idea....We are creating a new tomorrow from what will soon become antiquity; we are not rehashing petty divisions or reaffirming old prejudices.
- Mike Byron

I can't remember exactly how I met Mike Byron, but we encountered each other online a few years ago and immediately sensed that we were intellectual and political allies. Mike generously wrote an endorsement for the back of my book U.S. History Uncensored: What Your High School Textbook Didn't Tell You, and shortly thereafter, he sent me a copy of his first book, Infinity's Rainbow. After finishing it, as I recommended it and attempted to describe it, I found that I could best do so by calling it a catalog of the planetary emergency in which the earth community finds itself. Then Mike requested an endorsement from me for his next book, The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow which I was delighted to provide because it takes Infinity's Rainbow many steps further and offers options for individuals and communities in the wake of civilization's collapse.

Lest the reader erroneously infer from the words "infinity's rainbow" that either of these books are pieces of abstract, airy-fairy fluff, I hasten to assure you that they are not. Mike Byron is a professor of political science and history and in my opinion, has critically analyzed the complex relationships between the monumental issues of our time: Peak Oil, climate chaos, and the economic sea changes that "a world gone mad" is forcing us to address. In his words, The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow offers a guide to: "Navigating the coming years of crisis; surviving and transforming our world; and participating in the creation of a new, sustainable economy."

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In this review, I'd like to share how the book skillfully does this along with my experience of immersing myself in the pages of its sobering information and compassionate wisdom. Dedicated to his wife and partner, Ramona, her presence enhances the book with several stories which provide a delightful right-brain complement to Mike's analytical research and commentary.

The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow is a blending of reality and vision. While it's true that the first page of the introduction states that "...the patient effort of five hundred human generations and the struggles of ten momentous millennia are in the process of being obliterated forever, as though they never occurred," it is also true that the very first paragraph states:

This book is intended to empower you to navigate through the coming years of crisis, to survive and transform, and to participate in the creation of a new and sustainable political economy. It is a guide for thoughtful, knowledge-based action (xiii).
Fortunately, Mike doesn't convey any feel-good "hopeful, happy endings" but rather encourages the reader to seize her own opportunities for empowerment in the face of what some like Bill McKibben have called "the end of nature".

In Chapter 2, Byron states that "While learning is always continuing on an incremental basis, it is existential crisis alone that actually compels fundamental change if collapse is to be avoided." (20) I would argue, as does Byron in a later chapter, that collapse cannot be avoided because it is well underway, and I would also argue that collapse itself will produce monumental existential crises that will manifest the "memes" or "fundamental units of information that are linked schematically in an associative manner." (21) The example the author gives of a meme is the sight or thought of a rose leading to recalling by association "the scent of the flower, romantic occasions, walking hand-in-hand on a beach".

Memes lead to a common view of reality that results in a common culture. Thus, it seems to me that one of the basic causes of the collapse of Western civilization lies in the commonly accepted memes which have engendered stories that have brought us to where we are: that humans are superior to the other-than human world; that our survival depends on unrestricted, indiscriminate growth; that profit is more important than people and the earth community; that nature's abundance-which we have come to call "resources" are infinite and that humans have a fundamental right to privatize, use, control, and squander them. Collapse will unequivocally alter these assumptions and cause humans to create very different stories from the ones that have formed the underpinnings of empire.

But not only must the stories be changed, according to Byron, so must how we do things, and most importantly, "we must also fundamentally change ourselves." (23) Out of the ashes, he believes, could rise a sustainable civilization. While I agree, I also cannot imagine this happening in the short span of a few decades but rather requiring at least centuries. Humans are now visiting ecological trauma on planet earth that will take millennia, if not millions of years to eradicate.

Those who appreciate systems theory may revel in Chapter 2, "Concepts." As one whose eyes begin to glaze when delving too deeply into these principles, the most meaty portion of the chapter was the last page in which Byron combines both harsh reality with the promise of transformation.

"It is now far too late," he says, "to prevent our looming petro-collapse and all of its environmental consequences. Like the Titanic approaching the iceberg, collision with our attractor is now both inevitable and imminent. The difference is that, unlike the Titanic, we are actually speeding up as we approach our ‘iceberg'." (34)

This paragraph is so momentous, so poignant that the reader must ponder it carefully. Please let it sink in: We cannot prevent catastrophe, and the pace with which we are plummeting toward it is accelerating. When the impact of these two statements sinks in, how can anyone reading these words assume that his/her own or the planet's "business as usual" can continue?

But the author does not leave us there because he quickly adds:

However, it is possible for many of us to survive the catastrophe and to sow the seeds for civilization to be renewed with all of the learning of past ages relatively intact. This is because at the very center of it all are the ordered patterns of memes from which our minds emerge and interact with the minds of others. We can ensure that the lessons learned from this impending collapse are firmly incorporated into the minds and culture of our successor civilization's citizens and into their institutions and laws (34).
At the risk of sounding nit-picky, I must add that I personally do not want civilization to be renewed. I want it to be eradicated and relegated to the dustbin of human history as quickly as possible. I do have a vision, as I have written about repeatedly on this website, of what humans might create as an alternative to civilization, and I believe that this is also Byron's intention in writing this paragraph. No doubt this is a semantic issue, but I need to emphasize my repudiation of civilization and my commitment to the development of localized niches of eco-centric habitation and functioning which will do whatever it takes to ensure that civilization does not re-emerge on planet earth.

In Chapters 3 through 5, Byron takes us on a sobering journey through current reality, and I suppose that since I am already so familiar with its content, I most appreciated the opening quote of Chapter 3 by A.H. Almaas:
If you haven't struggled with a question, you cannot digest the answer even if it is handed to you.
Each time I'm asked "so what do we do about collapse and its attendant catastrophes?" the essence of the Almaas quote leaps to mind. The current presidential election charade is nothing if not the antithesis of what these words assert. The culture of empire is one in which individuals refuse to think or feel deeply about anything unpleasant or that challenges them to venture beyond the bounds of narcissistic consumerism. Thus, the intolerance of the overwhelming majority of Americans for being present with the dilemma without immediately jettisoning into "solutions." And as my friend, Tim Bennett, writer of "What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire", says, when people ask for "solutions", they fundamentally don't want an answer because an honest answer will require them to change everything about their lives down to their toenails. What the citizens of civilization desire instead, is some soporific, like a political candidate or a mass movement that will allow them to continue to live their lives exactly as they have been living them with the exception of perhaps a few minor changes that cause minimal discomfort.

I was relieved when I discovered that Byron ends his three-chapter analysis with a repudiation of national electoral politics by asserting that they "cannot be an effective means for regaining control over our corporate hijacked civilization." Here, I would want of Byron only one thing more--to lose the word "civilization" and perhaps replace it with "planet" because I believe that the fundamental assumptions and constructs of civilization must be questioned and eradicated. In fact, "industrial civilization" is itself a corporate hijack, and on one level or another, it always has been, even before the corporation existed.

I define civilization as Derrick Jensen does, "stories, institutions, and artifacts-that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities." Industrial civilization has exploited and defiled the earth for the past 6000 years and is inherently based on hierarchy, inequality, environmental and human degradation, and as a result of a fundamental split between humans and nature in the European psyche, skillfully analyzed by psychologist and author Ralph Metzner, has developed a "use" relationship with the more-than-human world.

With this in mind it was reassuring to read Byron's unequivocal emphasis on the pivotal issue of values:

I can't stress this point enough: the ultimate source of civilization's crises arises from our own deepest values. If these are not changed-if we do not change-then no technology can do any more than briefly delay civilizational Collapse-at the cost of making the Collapse of even greater magnitude than would otherwise have been the case. (131)
From Chapter 8 ("Strategies For Survival") onward until the book's end, Byron offers options for those who are willing to stare down collapse and allow it to transform every aspect of their lives. Consistent with the above quote regarding values, Chapter 8 begins with a section on knowing oneself and the assertion that individual survival first begins with critical thinking. "Clear critical-thinking abilities," Byron says, "in conjunction with physical health and robustness are the two fundamental essentials for individual and family survival. Hard times require sound minds and healthy bodies." (140)

But it is not enough to merely think; one must become an agent of change. Byron opens this section with a personal admission that he has reluctantly come to the conclusion that political change is not an effective means for bringing about the radical alteration of civilization's trajectory-this from a former Democratic candidate for Congress in 2004! In fact, he states that change at the top could only be brought about by revolution and that the only meaningful change that can occur must happen in local communities. Following his outline of Saul Alinsky's "Rules For Radicals," Byron emphasizes that revolution must begin within the existing political system, by which he means a local political system and that people must be willing to give up the existing system "before they will become receptive to fundamental change." (144)

As I ponder the last sentence, I feel nothing but pessimism about the facility with which the ruling elite has manipulated the masses into the national election chimera. In my opinion, until Americans have bought out of that delusion, it will be impossible for them to give up on the existing system and therefore comprehend that all solutions are local, and that if the "solution" isn't local, it isn't a solution. In fact, Byron states in a later chapter that "Simply engaging in politics as usual is an almost certain recipe for death during the Collapse-or, at the very least, impoverishment and curtailed freedom or outright serfdom for most of us." (179)

Consistent with similar advice offered by Dmitry Orlov in his new book Re-Inventing Collapse, recently reviewed by me at this site, Byron suggests residing in an intermediate-sized community that has adequate resources for food and water and that is detached from large urban centers. Although extreme isolation in a rural area may at first feel safer, both Byron and Orlov note the "safety in numbers" factor of which those attempting to navigate collapse must be aware.

A fabulous "Be Prepared" section (149-151) offers specific advice for survival and sustainability in real time, life-threatening situations. This section is a no-nonsense regimen that would make any seasoned Boy Scout proud and that one would want to post on one's refrigerator prior to collapse and carry in one's pocket afterward. Subsequent sections of the chapter include planting a victory garden, studying and implementing permaculture techniques, and familiarizing oneself with When Technology Fails: A Manual For Self-Reliance And Planetary Survival.

In Byron's "World Reborn" chapter, he states that he has come to believe that the universe is not without purpose and that civilization's collapse and renewal have great meaning. What I'd like to have read here, and I hope Mike will consider writing it, is an entire book that elucidates his sense of that meaning. My forthcoming book, The Spirituality Of Collapse: Restoring Life On A Dying Planet, attempts to do just that, but because Mike and I have similar, yet differing perspectives on this, I'm exceedingly curious to hear the details of his. In his "Letter From The Future" he summarizes the planetary initiation that collapse will provide which will transform the human species and allow it to realize its fullest potential, including the likelihood that the evolutionary leap produced over time by collapse will qualify earthlings to join the cosmic community of highly organized, vast intelligences-a community which pre-collapse earthlings are not yet equipped intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually to encounter.

In the book's final chapter "A New Direction", Byron envisions "a very quiet secession from a political economy that is dying, in conjunction with simultaneous alliance to another that is being born"-a process which he calls "the Renewal." In the section "Shackled Feet Can't Jump: The Human Rights of Women Are Essential", Mike emphasizes that the Collapse will eradicate the last vestiges of patriarchal oppression of both genders so that all human beings can make the greatest possible contributions to the Renewal. In this section I was humbled and honored to find a segment of my 2006 article "Post-Petroleum Woman" quoted in which I added from my perspective what may be a more gender-balanced approach to the Peak Oil issue than is generally offered by the preponderance of male researchers who overwhelmingly inform the conversation about that issue. To this I must also add an excellent blog post by Sally Erickson, producer of "What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire" in which she takes to task the white male "man-date" of fixing the world in order to avoid collapse. The words of her very latest post "Orlov And The Wonderful, Terrible, Radical Simplification", resonate with Byron's with respect to the "meaning" inherent in the Collapse:

I see the collapse as a piece of the story of the human, a real live myth, a very big and very profound story. I see this time and these events in ways that I imagine Gaia or Mother Earth may see them. What all of this represents is a vitally necessary process of cleansing and balancing. At its best, what we are involved in, and witness to, is a spiritual initiation rite of the highest order for an adolescent species in sore need of such an initiation.
Borrowing from Timothy Leary, Byron offers a twenty-first century maxim, asking us to tune in to ourselves, turn on or against corporate deceptivists, and drop out and create a new reality. In this section he speaks of "quiet defections" from the dying milieu, but I have to wonder if in the throes of the most chaotic stages of collapse, "quiet defections" or "quiet secessions" will be tolerated. I suppose this depends on how much petroleum and other resources the regime will have at its disposal to track dissenters and round them up. My guess is that the sooner one begins the defection process, the better for him/herself and the sooner the Collapse/Renewal that is trying to unfold can do so. It is important to add, I believe, that even now, we are seeing signs of the complete collapse of state and local governments as the global economic meltdown that is well underway is already imperiling the financial resources necessary to maintain and develop local infrastructures and essential services. Thus, as Byron emphasizes, it will be essential to be "prepared to spring into action at the local level as that happens." (189)

In his "Letter From The Future", mentioned above, Byron offered a sketch of what a post-Collapse government might look like-a subsidarity, as he names it, which would function at the level closest to the people affected, meaning that countless subsidarities might evolve. For these, Byron offers five indispensable principles for just and humane government founded on two underlying principles: "A transcendent belief in cooperative interdependence and an all-encompassing structure that spreads this belief: the Renewal."(195) The so-called transcendent belief simply means taking responsibility to leave the world livable for one's children, reusing and renewing everything, and living our lives according to the principle of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. (196)

This then, is the "path through Infinity's Rainbow", and it's a path with which I feel delightfully familiar. It's also a path about which I am quite certain Mike Byron will elaborate in future volumes of what he calls the Infinity's Rainbow series. As the unraveling continues, those of us who have been tracking it for months and years will benefit from reading The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow, and we will undoubtedly await Byron's forthcoming insights as we journey up and down, in and out of our personal and collective rainbows of Collapse and Renewal.

Mike Byron, Ph.D., is a professor of political science in the San Diego area and has published and presented many papers on politics and computer simulation. He was the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in California's 49th Congressional District in 2004. Visit his website.
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